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Connected Communities

‘Breaking up communities’?
The social impact of housing demolition in the late
twentieth century
Rebecca Tunstall and Stuart Lowe
Executive Summary Researchers and Project Partners
15% of all homes present in metropolitan Rebecca Tunstall
areas in England in 1955 had been Centre for Housing Policy, University of York
demolished by 1985, as a result of slum Stuart Lowe
clearance and urban redevelopment. Department of Social Policy and Social Work,
Despite the significance of housing University of York
demolition in late twentieth century
lives and cities, a literature review using Stephen Duffy
systematic methods found a narrow Centre for Reviews and Dissemination,
evidence base on its social impact. Many University of York
sources were methodologically weak, and
The research team worked with about 40
most did not offer before-and-after insights
individuals from a wide range of backgrounds
into resident experiences.
who contributed to a study and information
One widespread academic and popular sharing day. Their names are listed in ‘Breaking
summative assessment is that housing up communities’? Record of a study and
demolition ‘broke up communities’ in ways information sharing day, November 2nd
that community members regretted, and was 2012, York.
responsible for some of the most profound
changes in the nature of ‘community’ in the Key words
twentieth century. However, existing evidence
is not strong enough to support this argument
with confidence. Available evidence suggests Demolition
that for many households movement was Slum clearance
partly chosen; new homes and areas were not Displacement
distant, and were often preferred. For many, old Communities
social networks were maintained or new social Research methods
networks were preferred.
Additional sources including oral history,
testimony of those involved, and archive
research on patterns of movement offer great
potential for better understanding. These
matters are not just of historical concern, as
substantial housing demolition also occurred in
the 1990s and 2000s issues.

‘Breaking up communities’?
Questions about housing Until 2000, there was “remarkably, no general
account of the incidence [let alone the impact]
demolition in the late twentieth of slum clearance in England and Wales” (Yelling
century 2000 p126). There remains no authoritative
account of its impact on communities or its
In several periods across the twentieth century, ‘social meaning’: “the wider cultural and political
central government and local authorities significance of the massive transformation in
across the UK have carried out large scale working class life wrought by slum clearance
housing demolition. Homes were demolished and suburbanisation has barely begin to be
principally to meet aims of housing policy by explored” (Jones 2010a p513).The first stage of
removing unsatisfactory homes and creating work in this area is to attempt to form a general
sites for new building. Waves of clearance account from existing sources.
in the 1930s, 1950s-1970s, and, arguably,
in the late 1990s and 2000s, resulted in the Aims and methods
movement of millions of households. Between
1955 and 1985, the period which this study
This project aimed to explore existing evidence
focuses on, 1.5m homes were demolished
offering insight into the social impact of
in England and Wales, and 15% of all homes
housing demolition in the twentieth century,
present in metropolitan areas in 1955 had been
and the extent to which it offers support
cleared by 1985. This means that population
for the idea that slum clearance ‘broke up
movement through slum clearance has been
part of the history of a substantial minority of
families, neighbourhoods and communities Firstly the research used systematic search
across the UK. In some of the bigger cities this and review processes to identify evidence on
process transformed the built environment and housing demolition and related population
involved tens of thousands of households. movements, including surveys and case studies
of neighbourhoods and individual testimony,
There are two main interpretations of slum
drawn from published sources. The aim was to
clearance. Firstly, from the late nineteenth
make sure well-known cases did not influence
century up to the 1970s: slum clearance
overall results too much, and to ensure that
was seen as costly process and having many
other examples were not overlooked. This is
drawbacks, but essential and worthwhile
a relatively new approach in contemporary
for the eventual society wide, gains. Then
history. The review was carried out by Stephen
in the late twentieth century, there was a
Duffy, a specialist information scientist at
reassessment. Clearance was increasingly seen
as ineffective, expensive in money, and also Secondly, selected evidence was reviewed for
costly in other terms. In particular, academic relevance, quality and for contributions to
observers, practitioners and members of the answering the following questions:
affected areas argued that clearance had a 1. To what extent and for whom did areas
huge, unrecognised social cost because it ‘broke subject to slum clearance contain
up communities’. established spatially-based social
networks, valued by residents or their

2. What proportion of population movement including those affected by clearance in the
associated with clearance was chosen, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and more recently,
desired, accepted or forced? both as residents, community activities and
as employees of housing organisations, and
3. To what extent did movers choose their
academics. About half of those who attended
destination neighbourhoods (and did they
also shared their experiences and viewpoints.
remain in their initial destination area)?
Finally, the review results were amended in the
4. Did groups of residents from particular light of comments and extra material received
neighbourhoods move to the same at the information sharing day. They are
destination neighbourhoods? available online.
5. How far away did people move (and
how long did they stay where they have Results of the literature search
moved to)?
6. To what extent and for how long did any Despite the significance of housing demolition
established spatially-based social networks in late twentieth century lives and cities, a
persist after the moves and clearance? literature review using systematic methods
found a narrow and somewhat problematic
7. To what extent did those involved in
evidence base for assessing its social impact.
clearance identify and regret any ‘break up
of community’? The literature search identified just under one
hundred sources. Many were excluded because
8. How did those affected by clearance
they did not focus on the correct period or
assess clearance and refocusing experience
on the UK. Few sources offered before-and-
after insights into resident experiences, even
9. How important was any ‘break up of over the short-term. Few had information on
community’ to their assessment of the outcomes for residents. For example on health,
clearance and rehousing experience education or cost of living, as well as their
overall? attitudes. Many sources were based on quite
small samples. Most gave little information
10. How did the answers to these questions
about sampling strategy or the socio-economic
vary across different periods, programmes,
characteristics of the achieved sample.
sites, individuals and social groups, and
stages of processes? The only ‘tracking study’ which we found,
which talked to people before and after their
11. How representative of the whole process moves, was the Ministry of Housing and Local
and experience – across different periods, Government’s study of people who moved
programmes, sites, social groups, and from St. Mary’s in the centre of Oldham mainly
stages of processes – are the findings from to Oldham Corporation estates in the period
better-known case studies? 1963-1964/65. This study, published in 1970,
Thirdly, review results were presented at an interviewed 132 households before the move,
information sharing day. This brought together 335 after, and 63 both before and after. Unlike
40 people with an interest in the subject, most other studies, it explored variations in
opinion between residents and the extent

to which they could be linked to individual include Hole’s 1959 study of 88 people who
characteristics. moved within Motherwell and Wishaw,
A number of studies talked to people in outside Glasgow, with follow-up over a year.
clearance areas before they moved, and asked Cullingworth’s 1960 study interviewed 250
about their expectations of the move itself and people who moved from Salford to Worsley
the new area (rather than actual experience). (a suburb of Manchester), his 1961 study of
These include Brennan’s 1957-published study 161 who moved from London to Swindon,
of households in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Vereker Jephcott’s 1972 study of people who moved
and May’s 1961 study of 574 households in within Glasgow to high rise homes. Mogey’s
the Crown Street area, Liverpool, Dennis et 1955 study talked simultaneously to 30 people
al.’s 1970’s study of 688 people in central in a ‘slum’ area in Oxford and 30 in a new estate
Sunderland, Wilkinson and Sigsworth’s 1972 which was among the likely destinations for the
study of 3,370 in slum and ‘twilight’ areas first group (but these residents who had not
in Leeds, Batley and York, and English et al.’s necessarily all arrived following demolition).
1976 study of 1,025 people in area affected by There are many more studies of movers to
Compulsory Purchase Orders in Newcastle, new estates, expanded towns, and New Towns
Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, Leeds, Manchester which have been excluded because they do not
and ten smaller urban areas. This study used make it clear that at least many new arrivals
its relatively large sample to explore variations had experienced demolition and/or they do not
in opinion between areas and individuals, and ask residents to recall their old neighbourhood
what might explain them. and compare it to the new one.

There is a larger number of studies which talked

to people in new housing sites after they had What the existing evidence
moved in about their new homes, with recall shows – and doesn’t show
of their old homes and areas. These studies
included people who had moved because One widespread academic and popular
their homes were due to be demolished, but summative assessment is that housing
also generally included other people. The demolition ‘broke up communities’ and was
proportion in each group is sometimes not responsible for some of the most profound
made clear, and former neighbourhoods are changes in the nature of ‘community’ in
not always identified. This group includes the twentieth century. The implication is
probably the most famous relevant study, that clearance ‘broke up communities’ in
Young and Willmott’s 1957 Family and Kinship ways that community members regretted,
in East London. This work includes a sub-study and which later proved to be negative. The
of 47 households who moved from Bethnal nature of this assessment links to some of the
Green in London in the 1950s to the Essex arguments made in Young and Willmott’s
suburb of ‘Greenleigh’. The small number methodologically problematic Family and
of interviews and the lack of clarity about Kinship in East London. Young and Willmott
sampling is notable. It appears they selected argued: “very few people wish to leave the East
only families with at least two children, and End [of London]. They are attached to Mum and
included those who had moved voluntarily Dad, to the markets, to the pubs and settlement,
and not through demolition. Other studies

to Club Row and the London Hospital” (Young However, existing evidence suggests that in
and Willmott 1957 p155). Theirs was an places studied, for most people this ‘breaking
influential study. As they said in a new edition up’ communities effect:
released 40 years after the first: ■■ Was less important than other positives and
“Our book was well-received. Extracts were other negatives
published in the newspapers, the sales were ■■ Did not outweigh the home and
a record for a sociological study, government neighbourhood benefits most people got
ministers quoted us” (1990 pxvii). from moves
In October 2012 this 50-year old study had ■■ For some people it was a positive.
almost 2000 citations in GoogleScholar, while
the most citied amongst the other relevant This means that slum clearance 1955-85
studies had just 100 references and most had did not ‘break up communities’ in the wider
far fewer. and more significant sense. Thus Young and
Willmott may have been ‘too gloomy’ even in
However, Young and Willmott’s own 1957.
evidence is not strong enough to support the
‘breaking up communities’ argument. The Not all the studies contain information on the
authors themselves cautioned against over- nature of pre-existing community in areas
interpretation of their results, which they subject to slum clearance, but those that do
said were “bound to be impressionistic” (1990 suggest they did contain established, spatially-
p122). Their contemporary Cullingworth noted based social networks, which were valued by
this point “has been consistently ignored” many residents. This does not suggest they
(1960 p78). In the 1990 edition, the authors were valued above other things, and in some
reinterpreted their results. They argued that cases at least some residents disliked the
while Greenleigh in the 1980s was unlikely to people in their area.
be “a reborn version” of Bethnal Green in the Available evidence from the above studies
1950s, “in general we were too gloomy about the suggests that for many households, movement
future of such new places in the suburbs” (1990 was favoured if not chosen. For example,
pxxii) and that some aspects of the Bethnal while only 17% wanted to leave St. Mary’s,
Green community had survived the move. Oldham (MHLG 1970a, b), over half wanted
When all the other relevant studies are to leave St. Ann’s, Nottingham (Coates and
considered, it suggests that slum clearance Silburn 1970), 57% were in favour of clearance
1955-85 ‘broke up communities’ in the narrow in central Sunderland (Dennis 1972), and
and less significant sense that: 72% wanted to move in Leeds (Wilkinson
and Sigsworth 1972). For many new homes
■■ It forced people to move and areas were not distant and/or they were
■■ After the move, the neighbourhood preferred. Some played some role in choosing
population was more geographically the new neighbourhood. Many had at least
dispersed some old neighbours within their new area.
■■ People generally had fewer relatives and The vast majority moved within local authority
friends living within the new neighbourhood boundaries – a matter of a few miles. Cases like
than the old neighbourhood the move from Bethnal Green to ‘Greenleigh’,

16 miles away, were exceptional. For many, Recommendations for future
old social networks, and particularly links with
closest family and friends, were maintained to a
large extent after the move. In some cases, new
social networks were preferred. This field is important to urban studies, housing
studies, sociology, social history, and family
For many, no ‘break up of community’ was
history, and remains a sensitive and important
identified or regretted, or it was not salient in
topic for many of those affected, even decades
their overall assessment. It appears that the
after moves. Given the weakness of the existing
‘breaking up community’ argument was most
evidence base, the field would benefit from:
likely to apply to older, long-term residents,
and those who stood to gain least from moving ■■ Further searches and reviews of ‘very grey’
(home owners and those with better homes), literature not accessible to formal searches;
and in cases where this applied to many ■■ Further work on case studies in local
residents. In their multi-site study, English et al. archives;
found that: ■■ Secondary analysis of existing oral histories;
“80 per cent of young married households ■■ New oral history taking into account
renting houses in poor condition were in favour resident and other viewpoints.
of moving… three quarters of older households
owning a good house were against” (1976 p194). Those who wish to assess the social impact of
housing demolition in the 1990s and 2000s
However, existing data cannot do more than
may also face problems with the evidence base.
indicate the diversity of experiences.
Given the limited support for the ‘strong’
Additional sources with potential to add
version of the ‘breaking up communities’
to the existing evidence base on twentieth
thesis, future researchers in a wide range of
century housing demolition include new
fields should we wary of and ready to challenge
oral history and reanalysis of existing oral
received wisdoms.
histories, testimony of those involved, and
archive research on patterns of movement
and reactions. The record of the study and The results of the review in
information sharing day organised as part of detail
this project (see below) demonstrates the
richness and diversity of perspectives to be A summary of the results of the review and
gained from personal testimony. the full results of the review will be available at
These matters are not just of historical www.york.ac.uk/chp
concern. Substantial numbers of homes were The results of the study and information
demolished in the 1990s and 2000s. Written sharing day can be found in: ‘Breaking up
evidence and the testimony of many who communities’? Record of a study and information
attended the study and information sharing sharing day, November 2nd 2012, York.
day suggested that residents involved in more
recent demolition face many similar issues.

References and external links
Brennan, T. (1957) ‘Gorbals: A Study in Ministry of Housing and Local Government
Redevelopment’, Scottish Journal of Political (1970a) Living in a Slum, A Study of People living
Economy, Vol. 4, p114-126 in a Central Slum Clearance Area- Oldham
Bryant, D. and Knowles, D. (1974) ‘Social London, HMSO
Contacts on the Hyde Park Estate, Sheffield’, Ministry of Housing and Local Government
Town and Country Planning Review, Vol. 45, No. (1970a) Moving out of a slum: A study of people
2: 207-14. moving from St. Mary’s, Oldham London, HMSO
Coates, K. and Silburn, R. (1970) Poverty: the Vereker, C. and Mays, J. B. (1961) Urban
Forgotten Englishmen, London, Penguin Books. Redevelopment and Social Change: A Study of
Cullingworth J. B. (1960) ‘The Worsley Social Conditions in Central Liverpool 1955 – 56,
Survey’ Sociological Review, Vol. 8 No. 1 (July). Liverpool, Liverpool University Press.

Cullingworth, J. B. (1961) ‘The Swindon Social Wilkinson, R. and D. M. Merry (1965). ‘A

Survey’ Sociological Review, Vol. 9 No. 2 (July). Statistical-Analysis of Attitudes to Moving – a
Survey of Slum Clearance Areas in Leeds’,
Dennis, N. (1972) People and Planning: the Urban Studies 2(1): 1-14.
Sociology of Planning in Sunderland, London,
Faber. Wilkinson, R. and E. M. Sigsworth (1963).
‘A survey of slum clearance areas in Leeds’,
Dennis, N. (1972) Public Participation and Yorkshire Bulletin of Economic and Social
Planners’ Blight, London, Faber and Faber. Research, 15: 25-51
English, J., Madigan, R. and Norman, P. (1976) Wilkinson, R. K. and Sigsworth, E. M. (1972)
Slum Clearance: the social and administrative ‘Attitudes to the Housing Environment:
context in England and Wales, London, Croom An Analysis of Private and Local Authority
Helm. Households in Batley, Leeds and York’, Urban
Hodges, M. W., Lupton, T., Mitchell, D. G. Studies, 9:193-214.
and Smith, C. S. (1954) Neighbourhood and Yelling, J. (2000). ‘The incidence of slum
Community. An enquiry into social relationships clearance in England and Wales, 1955-85’,
on housing estates in Liverpool and Sheffield, Urban History 27(2): 234-254.
(Social Research Series), Liverpool, Liverpool
University Press. Yelling, J. A. (1999) ‘Residents’ Reactions to
Post-War Slum Clearance in England’, Planning
Jackson, J. N. (1959) ‘Dispersal – success or History, Vol. 21, No. 3: 5-12.
failure’ Journal of the Town Planning Institute,
Vol. XLV, No. 2 (January) Young, M. and Willmott, P. (1957) Family and
Kinship in East London, London, Routledge.
Jephcott, P. (1971) Homes in High Flats,
Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd.
Jones, B (2010) ‘Slum clearance, privatization
and residualization: the practices and politics
of council housing in mid-twentieth century
England’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol.
21, No. 4, pp. 510-539.

The Connected Communities
Connected Communities is a cross-Council
Programme being led by the AHRC in
partnership with the EPSRC, ESRC, MRC and
NERC and a range of external partners. The
current vision for the Programme is:
“to mobilise the potential for increasingly inter-
connected, culturally diverse, communities to
enhance participation, prosperity, sustainability,
health & well-being by better connecting
research, stakeholders and communities.”
Further details about the Programme can be
found on the AHRC’s Connected Communities
web pages at:

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